NEWS: Incarcerated veterans in Otero County Prison give back to community

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by Samantha Lewis                  Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Many veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and experience homelessness.

But a group in New Mexico, made up of veterans who are striving to make a difference, is helping such veterans rehabilitate.

Louis Matthews served his county in the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Coast Guard.

He worked closely with the Drug Enforcement Administration and; specialized in search and rescue operations and human trafficking operations in the South Pacific.

After his military career ended, Matthews made mistakes that led to him being in prison.

He said it was like being drafted again.

“Going to prison, it’s the last thing you want to hear,” he said.

But inside the walls of the Otero County Prison facility, Matthews found friendship with other veterans who were incarcerated.

“I never thought that I would be in a situation where I had found a brotherhood and a family in a prison,” he said.

Many of the inmates, including Victor Castillo, were hundreds of miles from home and suffering from PTSD.

“We’re not just inmates, we’re human beings,” Castillo said.

With the support of Warden Rick Martinez and the prison staff, some of whom who’re also veterans, the men in the Otero County Prison started their very own veterans club.

To be in the club, you have to maintain good behavior.

Prison councillor Javier Lopez says that rules instills purpose.

“Help them. Give them the resources. Give them the time. Give them a mission, something to do to help them,” Lopez said.

Members of the club also receive support from veterans who aren’t in prison.

Roy Maldonado is the elected state surgeon for the Veterans of Foreign War in Dona Ana County.

“One thing that’s preached to you is: Never leave a solder behind,” Maldonado said.

He joined Jeff Dray, the president of the Veterans Democratic Council of Dona Ana County, to help provide resources for the veterans club.

“These guys have outstanding character and they have a lot of drive,” Dray said.

“The No. 1 element in our rehabilitation it’s our own responsibility and one of the ways we do that is becoming more aware of our community,” veteran inmate George Tice said.

Club members built and customized a grill and cooler as a gift to veteran organizations in Dona Ana County.

For the holidays, the veterans in the Otero County Prison raised money to provide Thanksgiving turkeys for families in Chaparral.

They also filled backpacks with food, clothing and hygiene products for homeless veterans.

“Just because someone has fallen down, they’re having a hard time, doesn’t mean they’re done. To know that we can help the veterans really feels good,” one veteran inmate said.

The veterans club has also paid the electric bills for families in need and provided people with propane to keep their homes warm.

“It had brought the morality of the inmates up very high and very positive. They’re motivated about the club,” Delores Simmons, deputy warden of operations at Otero County Prison, said.

Club members also wrapped gifts to give out to children in the community for Christmas.

“They don’t look at the whole of what these clubs do for us. It’s not just for us, it’s for the community. It’s for the families,” Castillo said.

The veterans club meets twice a week and organizes food drives through their commissary.

“Mr. Dray and Mr. Maldonado, on behalf of the veterans club of Otero County Prison Facility, we’d like to present you this check for $500, which we raised during our charity drives here and with the understanding that it’s to be used to help the homeless and the near homeless in our local community,” Tice said.

The veterans club in the Otero County Prison has become one of the biggest donors to homeless veterans in Dona Ana County.

Martinez said there are now more than 50 members in the club.

“I’m proud of the staff and the inmates and the organizations that are part of this,” Martinez said.

“Believe it or not, they will be our neighbors and they’re gonna be released,” Simmons said.

Veterans and other inmates also have the opportunity to obtain a college degree while in prison.

Many of them are working to get access to benefits to hep them succeed when they’re released back into society.